The Comforts of Religion: Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary”

"The significance of Emma’s meditations may be lost upon one unfamiliar with the traditional rite of anointing, wherein the priest prays, as he anoints each of six bodily members: “By this holy unction and His own most gracious mercy, may the Lord pardon you whatever sin you have committed by [sight, hearing, smell, taste and speech, touch, ability to walk].” Emma’s thoughts are more than literary flourish; they are precisely the sorts of thoughts the Church encourages Christians to entertain as they prepare to enter into eternity.

Madame Bovarys priests are not idealized, but they are good, and their influence and their input are salutary. Flaubert’s novel is indeed realist: The heroine is flawed, as are her clerical saviors. Likewise, Flaubert’s God is not dead, or indifferent; rather, His grace operates in the real, day-to-day world of men where the dead don’t normally rise and the blind don’t normally see. Flaubert does for God and religion what he does for all his characters, placing them in their ordinary environment and letting them speak for themselves, without the contrivances of miracles and conventional hagiography. Intentionally or not, in doing so he pays these characters, even God, the highest of compliments. “For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’?” (Matthew 9:5)"